Female Firsts: Who was Nancy Astor?
Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.
Astor was not, as she is sometimes mistakenly described, the first female MP. This accolade goes to Constance Markievicz, who after being elected in 1918 refused to take her seat in the House of Commons in protest over Britain’s rule in Ireland.
Ms Astor grew up in the US and moved to England at the beginning of the 20th Century, where she married Waldorf Astor (a British Politician and newspaper owner). Waldorf succeeded his father’s peerage, and moved to the House of Lords, leaving an empty parliamentary seat in Plymouth Sutton. Nancy Astor decided to stand to succeed her husband in the resulting by-election – and won! This British Pathé footage shows the scenes on election day.
For two years Ms Astor remained the only female MP in Parliament, where she was frequently ignored and even heckled by male MPs.
“I had the privilege of being the first woman in the House of Commons, and sometimes I used to doubt whether it was a privilege. When I stood up and asked questions affecting women and children, social and moral questions, I used to be shouted at for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. That was when they thought that I was rather a freak, a voice crying in the wilderness” – Nancy Astor
After a few years a handful of other female MPs joined Astor in the Commons, and she became known for working with women across the political divides on a range of women’s issues. Footage from 1941 sees her joining with female MPs of other parties to speak in favour of equal pay.
As her parliamentary career continued, Astor became an increasingly a controversial MP, particularly in regards to her views on the Second World War and Jewish people. On the advice of her Husband she stood down an an MP in 1945.
In 1959 Astor was interviewed by Panorama about her experience as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament.
“It was like going into a members’ club… an all-male club” Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat, recalled the experience on Panorama in 1959.#InternationalWomensDay #IWD2019 pic.twitter.com/IRMYz4QJVc
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) March 8, 2019
Astor’s place in the House of Commons was significant in its symbolism. Until the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, women were unable to stand in General Elections and the chamber was exclusively made up of men. Astor’s arrival in the House of Commons saw the first step on a road towards increased representation of women in Parliament. Today however, women remain in the minority, making up only 32% of MPs.